Central Otago, New Zealand, Part 1

What is it about this region that has taken it from relative obscurity 20 years ago to one of the premiere Pinot Noir producing regions on earth? Well, it seems the answer is rather complicated, so I’ve split my piece in two. This week I’ll look at the significance of the history of this region as well as the territorial aspects that make it unique as a wine region. Next week I’ll talk about the hero varietal of Central Otago, Pinot Noir and why it thrives here, as well as the industry structure of the region and a look to the future. But first, let’s go back in time a bit.


Well one thing is for sure- the strength of this region is not in its history! Despite its striking and dramatic beauty today, the history of winemaking in Central Otago is not the romantic story like that of the Rhone Valley or Burgundy where vineyards date back to Roman times, and countless numbers of winemakers have lovingly worked the land over the centuries. In the 1860’s gold was discovered in the hills of Otago, and it was this, not wine that brought in the local population. It was a Frenchman (of course!) named John Feraud that had the bright idea of planting a vineyard in this region, to quench the thirst of the miners who travelled here to dig through the hills in search of fortune. He was laughed at. These tough, transient gold-diggers had no interest in wine; beer and spirits were what ‘real men’ drank in Otago at the end of the 19th century. He left town a failure, and his vineyard withered and died, unwanted and unloved, eventually being ripped out to make way for flocks of sheep and dairy cows. Once the gold was exhausted, the region became agricultural land, and winemaking was not tried again for over a century after this cautionary tale. In the 1970s, the first few grape-growers moved in, although many of the locals thought these viticultural pioneers were a few sheep short of a flock…

So what are the elements that make Otago a world-class wine region? Firstly and potentially most importantly is the climate of Central Otago. This is the most southerly wine region not only in New Zealand, but in the world. Otago sits on the 45th Parallel; so it is exactly half way between the equator and the South Pole. In addition to this, it is also has the highest elevation of any wine region in New Zealand and this elevation negates the moderating influence of the ocean when compared to somewhere near the coast like Martinborough or Marlborough. Finally, being totally land-locked, it is New Zealand’s only continental wine region, meaning temperatures vary rapidly between day and night, and across summer and winter. It gets properly cold here- especially at night. The region is bordered by mountains however, meaning that despite this being the Land of the Long, White Cloud, there is rarely much cloud cover over Central Otago. In summer, the clear days can get quite warm (mid-20’s) however this heat escapes as soon as the sun sets. Certain grape varieties (Pinot Noir most notably) absolutely thrive in this cool climate, and the vast diurnal (day to night) temperature variations ensure the grapes achieve expressive fruit from abundant sunshine but retain their brisk natural acid when the vines shut down in the cold of night.


Secondly is the layout of the land. As mentioned above, the whole Otago Valley is surrounded by high mountains which keep the rain away, and as I look up from my screen, there is always a snow-capped mountain peak in the distance no matter which way I look. The land undulates between the mountains, meaning the whole region is dotted with hills both large and small. Simple a feature though it seems, it is these hills that allows the production of such complex and delicious wines, and they assist in several ways; when a vineyard is planted on a slope- especially a north-facing one- it gives the vines several advantages over those planted on flat plains. The first is protection. In this cold climate, spring frost is a yearly danger, and the dense cold air pools on the flats. These slopes are protected from the frost that will kill the delicate flowers that become grapes. They also serve as protection against disease; if rain does fall, it runs down to the valley, where the heat makes it humid- perfect conditions for fungi like grey rot that can ruin whole vineyards. The hillside vineyards are again protected from this. Finally, the north facing slopes receive the full day’s sunshine, allowing them to ripen well in this cool climate.

Finally there is the all-important soil. The landscape of Central Otago has been carved over the aeons by glaciers, and the sub-soil in the area is mostly made up of mica, schist and greywacke (a ground-down mix of quartz, mudstone and feldspar). A thin layer of clay and loam soils sit on top of this. Due to the dry weather conditions, the soils are high in mineral content (rain would wash this all into the streams) but low in organic matter (rain would grow weeds and grasses), conditions that are highly conducive to premium viticulture. Vines planted on these soils cannot afford to waste energy on luxurious greenery, and instead focus their resources on producing small, highly concentrated berries in an attempt to woo birds into eating them, taking the next generation far away- hopefully somewhere easier to grow. This results in wines with intensity of flavour and reds with good tannic structure.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager